Big Tech giants often portray themselves as having redefined the free speech landscape in America, amplifying voices and views that otherwise would have no platform. Thanks to platforms like Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg said a year ago, “people no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard.”
But as these tech giants have accumulated more power over time, their role as equalizers has evolved into something resembling the gatekeepers they once claimed their platforms would subvert. The more of the national conversation these platforms contain, the more of the national conversation—and the viewpoints, opinions, access, and information therein—they control.
In some ways, this is obvious. One of the biggest areas in which social media leveled the landscape was in politics. Prior to digital advertising, insurgent and upstart campaigns had to take on cash-rich incumbents with the capital for big TV advertising spends in expensive media markets. With the advent of social networks like Facebook (and Instagram, which Facebook owns), Twitter, and Snapchat, insurgent campaigns had new arenas in which to raise awareness—and money.
In the 2016 race, the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns—then both insurgent outsiders—used digital advertising to great effect. Left-wing journalist Ryan Grim has also written about the asymmetric power of Facebook to propel populist outsiders like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) over long-time incumbent officeholders.
In this sense, one of social media’s greatest gifts was that it struck at the foundation of entrenched establishments. But Twitter already has turned off that power to its users, and Facebook has taken a step toward that same end. When it comes to politics, these platforms are reconstituting as the gatekeepers they used to upend.
Gatekeeping Independent Thought
But these platforms also have taken on less obvious gatekeeper roles, particularly as they relate to speech, information dissemination, and viewpoint diversity; all areas that threaten independent thought when gatekeeping is done on the massive scale at which these companies operate.
Take Facebook’s recent decision to declare Kyle Rittenhouse, the teen accused of two shooting deaths amidst the riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a mass murderer. Though Rittenhouse’s attorney says his client acted in self-defense, the platform has banned posts in “praise and support” of him, and removed links to contribute to his legal defense. A search for his name on Facebook yields no results.
Even the Wall Street Journal editorial board, normally a reluctant critic of Big Tech, criticized the platform, calling Facebook’s actions “an alarming resort to censorship on an issue of public concern by a company that has advertised its support for First Amendment values.”
“One of America’s most powerful companies,” the editorial went on, “is effectively giving its official imprimatur to Wisconsin prosecutors’ case against a specific defendant.”
Combine this action with Facebook’s hurry to remove anti-lockdown protest content because it violated social distance guidelines of local governments while taking no such enforcement against the very-non-socially-distant Black Lives Matter rallies, protests, and block parties organized on their platform; the collective action of all the Big Tech platforms to arbitrate “appropriate” medical opinions by banning a video of board-certified physicians discussing alternative medical treatments to COVID-19; and platforms like Twitter, whose “rules” are so ludicrously applied that a tweet about mail-in balloting from the president of the United States must be fact-checked while Black Lives Matter leader Shaun King using their platform to doxx the identities of police officers is “not in violation of the rules.”
Taken in aggregate, it becomes clear the type of thought patterns these platforms are imposing, at scale, on billions of users around the world.
Gatekeeping the 2020 Elections
The gatekeeping role of these mega-platforms is taking on broad and opaque roles as it relates to the upcoming election.
Big Tech’s influence on voter behavior already has been well-documented. Center-left leaning research psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein testified before Congress that Google “displays content to the American public that is biased in favor of one political party.” He estimated Google’s search behavior, which he tested against other search engines in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, swung as many as 2.6 million votes to Clinton. He also estimates that Google’s algorithmic filtering has “been determining the outcomes of upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide since at least 2015.”
In addition to banning new political ads the week prior to the election, Facebook is taking action to remove content it determines encourages “voter suppression” or “implicit misrepresentations about voting.” This, of course, is undefined and subject to whatever criteria Facebook makes up.
In a recent interview with Axios, Zuckerberg painted himself—the unaccountable billionaire no one has elected—as playing a critical role in determining a “fair” election. “What we and other media need to start doing is preparing the American people that there is nothing illegitimate about this election taking additional days or weeks to make sure all the votes are counted,” he told Mike Allen.
Facebook and other tech platforms reportedly are “war gaming” different election outcomes, as well as meeting with government officials about “potential threats to election integrity.” “Digital platforms,” Axios reports, are now as important as state and local elections agencies in “protecting public confidence” as it relates to “faith in democracy.”
In other words, unaccountable private mega-corporations have as much power as the government itself—actually more than the government, as their power is unchecked. The decision of government officials to meet with these platforms regarding election integrity is an admission of how much power they now hold; so much that the decisions of a handful of unelected CEOs could alter or distort voter behavior in a free society.
In other words, they aren’t just “private businesses.” Effectively, they are international suprastates—with more resources and influence than most small countries—with whom our government must negotiate.
These platforms have evolved into taking on the gatekeeper positions they formerly disrupted by choosing which voices get amplified, which versions of events are shown, and whose viewpoints matter and when—all at an unprecedented scale.
The role these platforms play in our society in shaping the narrative and information arcs should trouble all of us, but especially regulators and legislators tasked with defending and preserving individual liberty and free expression from the ceaseless creep of centralized and unaccountable corporate power.
From Section 230 reform and antitrust enforcement to executive action, a few elected officials are starting to wake up to the threat that corporate power at this scale poses to a free society. More are needed. The threat is real, and must be addressed with urgency.